Chrissa Hardy
Updated Aug 31, 2016 @ 12:25 pm
willy wonka
Credit: Wolper Pictures Ltd.

With the passing of legendary comedian Gene Wilder earlier this week, it’s almost impossible not to reminisce about his iconic lead role in 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. He was pure magic onscreen, with his quirky charisma and unpredictable nature, and according to some of his younger castmates, he was the same way offscreen as well.

Credit: Wolper Pictures Ltd. /

In an interview with People, Denise Nickerson (aka Violet Beauregarde, the girl who turned into a blueberry!) fondly remembers Wilder as a “tender-hearted, calm reflective individual.” Nickerson was just 13 when she starred in Willy Wonka, and was in awe of Wilder’s talent. Because director Mel Stuart didn’t want the kids to create a preexisting relationship with Wilder, they ended up meeting him in character.

“We met him when we were first doing the factory scenes. I remember sitting on the bleachers waiting for him to come out of the [chocolate] factory and rumor had gone around set that he was going to do the somersault – and he did and we all clapped. We got to know him a little more when we went in the room that got smaller and smaller [in the film], and when we sign the contract, but when we filmed in the chocolate room and he sang “Pure Imagination” that just, he stole my heart,” Nickerson said.

And when the movie takes a dark turn in the tunnel/boat scene (you know the one), Wilder famously improvised most of that rant, and Nickerson was left “speechless.”

Credit: Wolper Pictures Ltd. /

“My chin dropped, hit the ground, and never came back up. I had not anticipated that, it was not in the script that he was going to go off on that tangent. I was completely speechless. I thought, nobody is going to come and see this movie this [Wonka character] is a nutjob. But good thing I’m not a producer, right?”

It’s a testament to Wilder’s unforgettable talent that he slayed that scene with so much intensity that he literally convinced the other actors that he just about lost his mind.

Credit: Wolper Pictures Ltd. /

Everything he did in that role, from the subtle smirks to that twinkle in his eye, is what makes Willy Wonka such a timeless film.

Nickerson added, “I don’t think there will ever be anyone who could step in and fill his shoes.”

Credit: Wolper Pictures Ltd. /

Well said indeed. RIP, Gene Wilder.